Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is probably the greatest German writer of all time. His most famous work is the tragic play Faust in two parts. Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) also brought him great fame and recognition.
Goethe was born on August 28th, 1749 in Frankfurt, and by the age of 25, he was already an internationally-recognized writer and playwright. He was also a literary critic, a philosopher, and showed pronounced interest in botany and anatomy. Goethe’s most famous scientific work is Metamorphosis of Plants, published in 1790.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Facts
1. Goethe’s second novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship depicts parts of his early life
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe descends from a wealthy and respected family, an interesting fact about Goethe. His father, Johann Caspar Goethe, was a prominent member of the Frankfurt City Council and his mother, Katharina Elisabeth Goethe, nicknamed “Frau Rat”, was endowed with exceptional intellect.
The young Goethe was a homeschooler and received an excellent education from devoted private tutors who attended the Goethe House in Frankfurt. Goethe was trained in all of the general subjects of the time but showed a profound interest in languages. By the time he was 17, he could speak Greek, French and Italian fluently, and had a good understanding of Latin and Hebrew.
Once a year, Johann Caspar Goethe would invite Frankfurt’s leading puppet masters to organize shows for his son in the family’s mansion. These remarkable for the young Johann moments are recorded in his second novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which was published in 1796.
2. Goethe’s legal career did not take off
Goethe spent three years (1765-1768) at Leipzig University studying law, an interesting fact about Goethe. He soon realized that jurisprudence was too boring for him and spent much of his time listening to the poetry lectures of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert or frequenting Leipzig’s most famous pub, Auerbachs Keller.
In the spring of 1770, he enrolled at the University of Strasbourg to complete his legal studies. The following year, Goethe obtained Licentia Docendi, a degree that was one notch below Ph.D. and opened a small law firm in Frankfurt with financial support from his father.
Unfortunately, he was too emotional in his pleas in the courtroom and lost most of his cases. Soon, he sold his court license along with his practice and went off to Darmstadt to pursue a career in writing. He soon realized that the money he made from part-time scribbling and editing was not enough to support his existence. So, he reopened his legal practice in the spring of 1772 in Wetzlar.
3. Young Goethe’s health was feeble
Goethe’s father, Johann Caspar, was not happy with his son’s academic progress in Leipzig and promptly cut off his allowance, practically compelling him to return to Frankfurt. Upon returning to his home town in 1768, young Goethe fell ill and did not recover until 1770. His father distanced himself from his son even further and Goethe was nursed back to health by his mother and his sister.
4. Goethe’s Italian adventure 1786-1788
Goethe’s tour around Italy, including the island of Sicily, shaped his philosophical and aesthetic views. It began in 1786 and ended in 1788. Walking in the footsteps of his father, the budding poet and writer set off to discover his artistic self.
In his tour of Sicily, Goethe wrote that “… Sicily is the clue to everything.” In southern Italy, the young man had his first exposure to genuine Greek architecture and was overwhelmed by its simple, yet deeply original designs and forms. Historians and biographers have noted that Goethe visited the thriving merchant port of Venice in the second year of his Italian adventure, but there is no written evidence of this visit.
5. Goethe’s time at the court of Carl August
The Sorrows of Young Werther skyrocketed Goethe to instant fame. So much so that he received an official invitation to spend time at the court of Carl August. Little did Goethe know at the time that his move to Weimar would last until his final day.
Thanks to his sharp wits and sense of humor, he quickly climbed the career ladder to become the Duke’s chief advisor. His marriage to Christiane Vulpius, his long-time sweetheart, coincided with Napoleon’s invasion of Weimar in 1806. Interestingly, the great Emperor even appeared at the doorstep of Goethe’s house.
While working for the Duke, Goethe came up with the fascinating design of Weimar’s botanical garden. Also, he helped with the renovation of the Ducal Palace. Today, these are the city’s two most important landmarks.
6. Goethe the scientist
Undeniably, Goethe has been immortalized as Germany’s most famous poet and writer. However, he also showed a pronounced interest in the field of science. An interesting fact about Goethe is that his principal subjects of exploration were the origin and interaction of colors and plant morphology.
It has been well-documented that in his lifetime he held in his possession an incredibly large collection of minerals, gathered from exotic destinations around the world. Apart from the Metamorphosis of Plants, mentioned above, he also wrote Theory of Colors in 1810.
7. The fascinating friendship of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
At some time in 1791, Goethe became the director of the theater in the city of Weimar. Three years later, he met Germany’s outstanding playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. Goethe was so fascinated by Schiller’s writing style that Weimar’s theatre became the premiere venue of every single play he published after 1794. This tradition continued until Schiller’s death in 1805.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Goethe was no stranger to carnal pleasures. Many of his writings were of deeply sensualist nature. For example, Faust first uses his newly-acquired supernatural powers to seduce a girl in her teens.
Also, some of the epigrams that Goethe wrote during his say in Venice were rejected by his publisher due to their sexually-explicit nature. When he was in his seventies, he had an affair with Ulrike von Levetzow, who was just seventeen at the time.
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